DALLAS (AP) - Just behind Billy Ray and Zada Pemberton’s little brick house - hidden in a secluded grove of oak trees 10 minutes south of downtown Dallas - a crystal clear spring bubbles up in a small pool and spills into a sliver of a creek that runs toward the Trinity River.
The fount, now known as Big Spring, is the beating heart of a lush meadow that attracted Dallas’ founding father more than a century ago and Native American tribes for time untold before him.
For the last 40 years, Billy Ray, 78, and Zada, 68, have been the keepers of this place, one of the few natural springs in Dallas not covered with concrete. They’ve mowed the grass when it gets too tall, picked up trash washed in by floods and fended off attempts by the city and others to damage or destroy the pristine landscape.
Now, after decades of their quiet stewardship, an effort to protect the spring - even after the Pembertons are gone - is nearly complete.
Last week, the city’s Landmark Commission approved a first-of-its-kind historic designation that would preserve Big Spring and ensure it remains intact for future generations to enjoy.
The approval leaves it to the city Plan Commission and the City Council to sign off on the designation before it becomes law.
The designation would mean more than a dozen rules meant to prevent major alterations to the site.
The loose-knit group of environmentalists, conservationists and historians who advocated for Big Spring hope the landmark designation, normally used to preserve old buildings or neighborhoods, can be expanded to protect other environmentally significant areas in Dallas.
To the Pembertons, the designation offers a chance to share with the rest of Dallas a spot that’s been their “secret” for decades.
“I’d like to see it more accessible to the public,” Billy Ray Pemberton told The Dallas Morning News (https://bit.ly/1UHMcVA). “I would love to see more field trips. For kids to get to experience a bit of the pioneer life.”
The short walk down the hill that connects the Pemberton home to the spring is a walk back in time, as Billy Ray recalls childhood memories and family lore on the land.
There’s the spot where milking sheds used to stand, the concrete remnants of a well drilled in 1934 and a railroad spike driven into the trunk of a walnut tree to mark the flood level from a 1942 storm.
Billy Ray and Zada Pemberton moved to their home near Big Spring in 1980, a century after Billy Ray’s grandfather purchased the land from Margaret Beeman, the daughter of John Beeman, one of Dallas’ first permanent settlers, and the wife of the city’s founder, John Neely Bryan.
For thousands of years, the allure of clean water had drawn humans to Big Spring, starting with prehistoric hunter-gatherers and leading to the first white settlers who saw the potential for farming and grazing around the spring.
Edward Case Pemberton farmed the land and used the spring as part of his dairy operation until 1914, when he was shot and killed at the mercantile store he owned near what’s now the intersection of Pemberton Hill and Lake June roads.
Case Pemberton’s land was divided among his seven sons, and over the decades that followed, the Pemberton homestead splintered as it passed through the generations. Some descendants kept the land to farm and later to mine gravel, while others sold their holdings outside the family.
For Billy Ray, caring for the spring came naturally after a childhood spent playing in its waters and the nearby forest. He calls the spring a “place of inspiration.”
“I never did feel comfortable living in suburbia where your neighbor’s right next to you,” Billy Ray said. “I guess it’s kind of in your blood.”
Although they’ve never actually owned the land that includes Big Spring - that passed down through a different line of the family and was acquired by the city in 2004 - the couple became the site’s unofficial caretakers upon their arrival.
Their first tangle with City Hall came in the 1980s, when plans called for a new sewer line to be run through Big Spring to support the continued development of southern Dallas. Billy Ray’s successful lobbying effort persuaded the city to reroute the sewer away from the spring and brought new attention to the area, drawing in visitors on Dallas Historical Society tours.
Over time, naturalists, bird watchers, archaeologists, historians and others began to seek out the site.
Still, the spring remained largely hidden and undisturbed for 20 more years, until the city bought the land surrounding it and began moving forward with development plans that eventually resulted in the opening of the Texas Horse Park.
The city’s encroachment and uneven approach toward conservation raised concerns about its plans for one of Dallas’ last remaining artesian springs. Its efforts in other parts of the Trinity Forest had already drawn the ire of environmentalists, who criticized what they saw as the unnecessary clearing of trees and questioned the city’s approach to cutting trails through the forest.
At various points, the city’s plans for Big Spring included allowing horses to roam around it and later, a fence that would have restricted public access to the site.
The threat to the spring brought together residents, led by naturalist Ben Sandifer, who over email, Facebook and the occasional meeting hatched a plan to save the spring. Instead of fighting city officials, they’d work with them, building a case that the spring’s natural setting and connection to the city’s earliest days warranted landmark protections.
Big Spring presented a unique case for the city, which had procedures to preserve its built environment but not its natural one.
“It’s not quite as cut and dried as when you’re looking at a building,” said Marsha Prior, a historic preservation planner with the city who’s been in charge of the Big Spring designation. “The value of this whole site is the integration between nature and culture. … We did our best to tie those threads together when developing the preservation criteria.”
The proposed rules would ban new construction, while placing restrictions on fencing, signs and trails near the spring. Any major changes would receive an added layer of scrutiny from the city and require approval from the Landmark Commission.
Prior said the guidelines are meant to “maintain the land as it is” while also providing context for future generations about the significance of the spring.
For the Pembertons and others involved in protecting Big Spring, the landmark designation marks a shift toward more active conservation of natural resources at City Hall.
But there’s still some trepidation about turning over responsibility for the site. Those involved want the city to find a way to include the Pembertons and the citizen scientists who’ve cared for Big Spring in its future management.
Standing in the shade of a roughly 200-year-old bur oak tree, Billy Ray Pemberton cups his hand and takes a drink of the cool spring water. Nearby, tiny mosquito fish flit about in the stream.
“Tastes pretty good,” Pemberton says with a smile.
The walk up the hill toward his house takes him through an open sea of grass filled with some 600 tiny orange flags that mark flora planted by naturalists as part of a restoration effort. Come spring, the expanse will be covered in wildflowers.
Back inside the house, Billy Ray picks at a slice of banana bread as he talks about the future of the spring, and his desire for the city to make “wise choices” about how it’s used.
“I want to think positive: that there will be a growing concern within the city government and from the citizens of Dallas to protect our natural resources,” he says.
There are still many details left to sort out over how to give the public access to Big Spring without harming its natural features.
But the Pembertons say they’re confident the community that’s built up around Big Spring will be there to protect it, even when they’re not.
“I’m glad that the watchful care of the property is being passed on to people who I feel like will help the city be responsible,” Billy Ray Pemberton said.
The couple muses about the possibility that someday one of their grandchildren might want to live in the house overlooking the spring.
“It’s not about us,” Zada adds. “It’s about the younger people. Protecting it for them.”
Information from: The Dallas Morning News, https://www.dallasnews.com
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